The Interior Ministry on Thursday confirmed for the first time that Cambodian officials are paying a second visit to the South Pacific island nation of Nauru this week to look for refugees interested in resettling in Cambodia, but said the delegation has yet to find any takers.
Cambodian officials first visited Nauru in January, four months after Phnom Penh struck a $35 million deal with Canberra to take in an unspecified number of refugees that Australia has been holding on the island. Only three families met with the officials on that trip, and none took up what is proving to be an unpopular offer.
Despite media reports this week that Cambodian officials were back on Nauru, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Tuesday that the government had not sent a delegation to the island since January and had no imminent visit scheduled.
On Thursday, General Sopheak finally confirmed that Cambodian officials were back on Nauru, but said he did not know when they arrived or how long they planned to stay. He said the team included officials from the ministry’s immigration department but not department chief Sok Phal.
“We have sent them,” he said. “We have sent them to tell [the refugees] about Cambodia.”
Gen. Sopheak conceded that interest among refugees was still low, with only two or three families coming out to hear Cambodia’s offer, but said he was untroubled by the cold shoulder.
“If no one comes it’s OK. Let it be,” he said. “I’m happy to hear no one wants to come…because they don’t want Cambodia as their last destination.”
The general said he was even praying for the refugees to get what they have wanted since fleeing their home countries—a new home in Australia. However, Australia’s conservative government is refusing to take in any of the refugees, having come to power on a promise to “stop the boats.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has agreed to help Cambodia and Australia with the deal, said Thursday that it also had someone on the island.
“A staff member attached to IOM Cambodia is on Nauru now as part of our preparations to work with the governments and the refugees if and when any elect to come to Cambodia,” said Joe Lowry, regional spokesman for IOM.
The IOM says convincing refugees to take up the offer will be strictly up to Cambodia and Australia, and would not comment on the progress of those efforts.
Australia has offered Cambodia $35 million in additional aid for taking in the refugees, but Gen. Sopheak said the government was indifferent about the prospect of losing out on the money if refugees do not want to be resettled in Cambodia.
“We don’t care about the money,” he said.
The aid package was not in the agreement signed in September by Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Scott Morrison, Australia’s immigration minister at the time. Mr. Morrison announced the extra aid in an ensuing interview with the media.
Mr. Kheng is currently in Australia and met with Mr. Morrison’s successor, Peter Dutton, in Canberra on Thursday. The two men signed off on another memorandum of understanding, agreeing to cooperate on fighting cross-border crime and illegal immigration.
Before leaving for Australia on Tuesday, Mr. Kheng said discussion of the refugee deal was not part of his schedule for the trip, but conceded that the topic might arise.
On Thursday, Gen. Sopheak said he was unaware of what the two men had talked about.
Also Thursday, Australian media reported that the Australian Senate had voted to set up a committee to review allegations of sexual assault inside the Australian-run detention center for asylum seekers on Nauru.
Gen. Sopheak said Cambodia was not concerned about how its cooperation with Australia might reflect on the government amid the numerous allegations of abuse and poor conditions on Nauru.
“It is Australia’s affair,” he said. “It is not Cambodia’s business.”